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Media Circus

Mourning in America

By Michael Anft | Posted 8/7/2002

It might seem like it was only yesterday that planes flew into buildings, changing the dynamics of international terror and confronting comfortable Americans with the uncomfortable idea that their lives are not exceptions to the world's eternal roilings. But Sept. 11 was nearly a year ago, which means that--fresh as those images and thoughts may be in our minds--we will be reliving it all again. The media's propensity for memorializing demands it. Given the shock of events, that date is, of course, one to remember, investigate, analyze, and place in sharper relief to the intervening year. So why is it I'm so afraid that we'll be bombarded with little more than weepy reminiscences, half-assed "analyses" of why it happened, and reports from the front on the billion-dollar "war" we're waging against al-Quaida members, whose numbers might not exceed 200?My fears are twofold: We'll be special-sectioned and TV-specialed to death on the subject, but very few major media outlets will ask anything resembling the right questions, resulting in loud yet lightweight coverage of the deaths of more than 3,000 people. The standard newsroom formulation that says the Big Story deserves Big Coverage too often doesn't factor in the newsworthiness of what is actually being "reported," or the fact that events need to be looked at in deep, fresh ways so sense can be made of them. Too often--from saturation coverage of the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979-'80 to the latest cable-news hyperreaction to the story of the day--viewers and readers have been left with little more than repetition, heartstring-tugging, and hysteria. Isn't this why so many Americans hate media in the first place?

I'm not the only one worrying. Matthew Felling, media director of the Washington-based watchdog group the Center for Media and Public Affairs, says an ad-dominated medium such as television might be the worst place to remember the dead. Responding to the likes of CBS CEO Leslie Moonves--who recently told reporters, "It is far better to err on the side of giving too much coverage than not paying enough respect to what happened"--Felling told The Washington Times, "We're asking the industry of wretched excess to properly cover a day of quiet solemnity [on Sept. 11]. And their plans to surround us with wall-to-wall remembrance smacks of overindulgence in grief."

"Paying respect," on many levels, is the issue. Respectful and respectable news organizations would not give us just the obvious mourning-in-America angle but would continue to treat the event and fallout from it as news. They would ask questions that might lead to a clearer understanding of the events of Sept. 11 and the months after. Questions like: What civil liberties have been infringed upon by the Justice Department in the past year, and will the feds move to restore them now that there have been no large-scale terror attacks in a year? How many charity dollars have gone to the life-insurance beneficiaries of well-heeled stockbrokers and the like killed in the attacks, and how much has gone to the destitute families of illegal-immigrant workers also killed? What, if anything, does Saddam Hussein have to do with al-Quaida? And if the answer is nothing, why is the Bush Administration openly planning a war with Iraq?

I hope I'm wrong, but given that much of the media these days seems to view its role as "healing," I bet we see few of those questions asked, much less answered.

Live. Brutal. Faith-Shaking?It's not very smart or career-savvy for a media critic to admit this, but here goes: I rarely watch television. Kind of like a firefighter who refuses to handle a hose, or a chef who'll work only with hydroponic vegetables, I've hamstrung myself with my piddling viewing habits, which rarely center on much more than basketball-dribbling turtles. In the interest of broadening my media palette (and giving my whipping boys and girls at The Sun a break), I recently watched a week's worth of late local news and have this to report: How boring. I'd been led to expect earth-shattering investigative reports on what women do in restaurant bathrooms or how a news reporter escapes from a submerged and sinking car. But my week with a remote yielded little but the same stories told the same way by four different stations. The reporting? Perfunctory. The subjects? A mishmash of stock health features, beached whales, shady congresspersons, superficial meet-the-candidates political stuff, and abducted children and teens. To assuage my ennui during this exercise, I started coming up with categories that made the stations seem more exciting, such as Best Station to Watch With the Sound Off. The winner there, hands down: WMAR (channel 2), with its three wildly gesticulating, bobble-headed anchors.

To their credit, though, Baltimore's news shows do cover "local news"--the murders, fires, and fatal car wrecks that constitute the holy trinity of street reporting. Some, including Sun TV/radio columnist David Folkenflik, don't appreciate the locals' concentration on violence. (Hope you Sunsters enjoyed your break!) It's an old argument: Media offer their consumers something to temporarily sate the audience's presumed lust for vicarious violence, thus appealing to viewers'/readers' worst instincts. A local corollary is that TV news programs show so much death and destruction that it scares people from visiting or moving to the city.

It's a theory I've espoused in the past, but I no longer think it adds up. In his July 31 column, Folkenflik takes stations to task for putting murder and mayhem first in newscasts, then regularly following up with criminal-justice reports. My retort: Until recently, there were 300 murders per year in Baltimore City alone. Neighborhoods are transformed regularly by violence or the threat of it. People are leaving the city in droves because of this--not because of the news coverage. And: Wouldn't it be dishonest if other, less-important stories--ones that gave news watchers the "fuller view" of city life that Folkenflik espouses--led newscasts when homicide deaths remain The Story here? Just because murders happen all too regularly doesn't mean that each life snuffed out isn't newsworthy. If local TV news deserves a bum rap, it is because its reporters aren't allowed, or lack the talent or gumption, to delve deeply or often enough into the subject.

Alternative Lifestyle ChoiceThis is the last issue of City Paper that will feature the tough-minded editing and snappy headline writing of editor Andy Markowitz, who has decided to follow his six and a half years here with a lengthy exploration of the bars and cafés of Prague, where his wife will be working. Markowitz's tenure here was marked by a well-developed hard-news sense, several new columns, and an unwavering confidence in the paper's raison d'être that his predecessors couldn't quite muster. Those of us who have come to know him will miss his openness to story ideas almost as much as his clever rantings as the author of the office NCAA-men's-basketball-tournament-pool newsletter. Arts editor Lee Gardner takes the editorial throne Aug. 12.

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